On Sunday, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) 31st fleet left the city of Zhanjiang to sail to the Gulf of Aden and waters off the coast of Somalia in the western Indian Ocean region to “escort civilian ships,” according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.
The PLAN contingent comprises a landing vessel, a missile frigate, and a supply ship, with 700 PLAN officers and sailors manning the vessels. In addition, “dozens” of special operators have been sent.
“In the past 10 years, the Chinese Navy has sent out 26,000 officers and soldiers, escorted 6,595 ships and successfully rescued or aided more than 60 Chinese and foreign ships,” Xinhua noted.
In recent years, China has been emphasizing its role in countering piracy in the eastern Indian Ocean region and the Gulf of Aden as evidence of the Chinese navy’s growing expeditionary role as the PLAN transitions from its historic role as a coastal defense navy to a global blue water navy.
In late March and April 2015, the PLAN played a prominent role in evacuating its own citizens and foreigners from Yemen as the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthi rebels there began. The recent big-budget Chinese military action film Operation Red Sea was loosely based on those evacuation operations.
China has set up its first overseas military facility in Djibouti, taking advantage of the country’s strategic location astride the Gulf of Aden and the critical Bab-el-Mandeb Strait connecting that body of water to the Red Sea, which leads to the Suez Canal.
“The PLA logistics support base in Djibouti is built to better fulfill the international obligations such as escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and waters off the Somali coast, as well as to provide humanitarian relief,” Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesperson Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang noted in a November press conference.
“In the future, the Chinese military will continue to send ships to conduct escort missions in international waters on a regular basis, giving full play to the role of the PLA logistics support base in Djibouti,” he added. “We will fulfill our international obligations, and will continue to make contributions to regional peace and stability and also to protect major sea lines of communication.”
Despite China’s insistence on its interest in deploying the PLAN to protect the global commons, Asia-Pacific states like India, the United States, and Japan regard the Chinese Navy’s growing footprint in the Indian Ocean with concern.
A particular area of concern for these states is the growth of PLAN submarine operations in the Indian Ocean region. “These submarine patrols demonstrate the PLAN’s emerging capability both to interdict key sea lines of communication (SLOC) and to increase China’s power projection into the Indian Ocean,” a 2018 U.S. Department of Defense report on China’s military noted.